Almond growers were in a celebratory mood during the Almond Board of California’s annual conference, held last Wednesday and Thursday in Modesto. And why not? Not only did they have a limb-busting record crop — the fourth time they’ve set the record in the past seven years — but prices are holding firm.
Now they can take a deep breath as bearing acreage has finally leveled off at 750,000 acres, said Chico grower Dan Cummings, a partner in Cummings-Violich, Inc., one of American/Western Fruit Grower’s Top Nut Growers. Cummings noted in his “Cummings Report” that in October, for the first time in history, monthly shipments topped 200 million pounds. Shipments to Asia have been especially strong, he said, up 30% from last October and 19% year to date. Growers are understandably concerned about Europe’s economic problems, but so far so good.
“Growers are generally happy for now; market prices are holding firm even with a 20% increase in production (meaning 20% more revenue per acre and strong cash flow), bearing acreage growth rates are moderating, consumption is growing, and almonds are still far and away the best value tree nut,” Cummings reported. “Next year’s crop is unlikely to equal the tremendous record 2,600 pounds per acre forecast for this year, thus demand is gaining on supply with improving prices. No surprise then that nurseries are reporting record sales and orders of new trees!”
The almond industry is highly dependent on honey bees brought in from the Midwest for pollination. In fact, at the conference’s annual update on honey bee health and supply, Ned Euliss of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center noted that 80% of the nation’s pollinated crops are dependent on bees that spend summers on the Northern Great Plains, mainly North Dakota. Of the 1 million colonies that summer in North Dakota, 85% are brought to California each February for almond bloom.
The value of all the honey produced in the U.S. each year is only slightly more than their almond pollination value, said Cummings, who has an unusual perspective, as he’s one of the few almond growers who is also a beekeeper. While industry prospects are bright, it’s not all good news. Cummings noted that the mysterious honey bee malady, Colony Collapse Disorder, is still routinely causing losses in the neighborhood of 30%.
Two potential alternatives to honey bees both have their good and bad aspects, Cummings noted. Blue orchard bees are excellent pollinators, perhaps even better than honey bees because of their willingness to fly even when temperatures drop — a key attribute for growers of almonds, the first of the orchard crops to be pollinated each year — but they cost slightly more. While honey bees run an average of $300 per acre, based on a two-colony-per-acre average, blue orchard bees cost $350 per acre. In addition to costing a bit more, Cummings said blue orchard bees are more sensitive to crop protection products. “They’re not a replacement for honey bees yet,” he concluded.
Another alternative is self-fertile almond trees. (Perhaps the best known variety is the Independence almond, which was developed by Zaiger Genetics of Modesto, and is marketed by Dave Wilson Nursery. It was featured in the Nov./Dec. issue of American/Western Fruit Grower magazine, and that story can be found by clicking here. There are now 5,000 to 7,000 acres of self-fertile trees in the ground, said Cummings, but the jury is still out. “There’s a lot more to be learned,” he said, “but this is an area that holds promise for the almond industry.”